UK Government must fix exports issues, says Commerce boss

We are calling on the UK Government, as well as EU officials, to urgently examine the issues currently plaguing exporters, says British Chambers Of Commerce’s SHEVAUN HAVILAND

The past year has seen our country face some of the most extreme economic conditions in its history. The effects of lockdown saw all the primary indicators of the health of our economy crash in the early months of 2020. 

And whilst the historic achievement of the successful vaccine programme is seeing those indicators now rebounding at a record pace, there is now a gathering storm in our export sector that threatens to derail the recovery and our long-term ambitions for a truly global Britain. Action needs to be taken swiftly. 

Eight months on from the end of the Brexit transition period, issues in our new relationship with our largest and closest trading partner are still causing massive problems for our exporters. 

Collision course: Issues in our new relationship with our largest and closest trading partner are still causing massive problems for our exporters

We must be absolutely clear here – these are not ‘teething problems’. Indeed, exporters are historically the leading innovators and problem solvers of our dynamic UK business community – and what they are telling us is that they are facing problems which they simply cannot solve. 

Small and medium-sized exporters have found themselves consumed in an avalanche of red tape and blockaded by disruption, to the degree that many have simply been forced to cease selling to EU-based customers altogether. 

The British Chambers of Commerce’s most recent export survey in June showed that three out of four exporters were seeing no growth in sales for the second quarter of 2021, whilst the proportion reporting reduced sales was historically high at 28 per cent. Yes, the coronavirus pandemic has played its part, but that is by no means the only factor. As one exporter put it: ‘A combination of Covid and Brexit has generated serious uncertainty and delays for our business, but Brexit is far more of an issue for us than Covid.’ 

That is why we are calling on senior Ministers in the UK Government, as well as EU officials, to step in and urgently examine the issues that are currently plaguing SME [small and medium-sized] exporters. 

We need these issues to be raised as an urgent priority at the Partnership Council meetings between the two sides and looked at personally by the UK’s negotiator Lord Frost and the EU’s vice president Maros Sefcovic. 

Currently the costs of attaining a vet-signed health certificate for every consignment shipped – and the burden of having to pre-notify authorities before shipping – are crushing businesses in the agriculture and food and drink sector. 

We also need a rapid resolution to the issue of CE-marked goods and components – the mark of meeting European health and safety standards – being shut out of the British market from January. 

That is when a new regime comes into place requiring all items that need safety certification to attain the new ‘UKCA’ mark. There are simply not enough accredited testing centres to achieve what amounts to decades worth of retesting of products and components in the next few months. In the first instance, we have asked the Government to extend this deadline in order to avoid an enormous cliff edge at the end of the year and allow more capacity to be built for testing centres to apply the new certification method. 

Companies are still reeling from the impact of changes in everything from VAT to rules of origin checks. With the introduction of inbound customs checks in October, and other border controls next January, it is vital that Ministers restore an expanded version of the Brexit SME transition grants scheme to help smaller businesses meet the costs this will bring. 

This vital funding has already meant the Chambers of Commerce documentation service, ChamberCustoms, has been able to help thousands of businesses continue to export to Europe through training and advice. But that facility needs to be both extended and access to it streamlined.

Forging new trade deals can, of course, help to open new markets for our exporters but the Government must also ensure the UK gets the maximum value for businesses from our current trading relationships. 

The Government must take steps to allow our traders as much access to their nearest market as possible, and the new agreements that we strike should be shaped by a truly joined-up Global Trade Strategy. 

The British Chambers of Commerce was founded more than 160 years ago to promote British trade and we continue to do that to this day. We are not down on the prospects of our export sector – far from it. We want to double the number of UK companies exporting our world class goods and services to over 500,000 in the coming years. 

Across the country, Chambers of Commerce stand ready to help exporters navigate new markets from Australia to India, but businesses can only lift their eyes to this ambition for the future if we can first secure the present.